• Blitz Picks 2015: Championship Weekend

    Folks, we have almost reached the conclusion of another NFL season and for the "Blitz Picks" columns. For this installment, we do not have a set of questions and will do and a back-and-forth on each game instead. We hope you have enjoyed these missives as much as we have enjoyed writing them.

    Sunday, January 24, 2016

    New England at Denver, 3:05pm-RG: Well, Brian, for maybe the last time, it's down to Brady and Manning again. There's going to be a lot of talk about TB v PM XVII. Sorry, I couldn't help but start using the Roman Numerals early because I don't think I will have a problem with any of the four possible Super Bowl match-ups. Yes, it's interesting that Brady is 11-5 versus Peyton Manning. However, they are 2-2 against each other in the playoffs. In fact, Manning has won the last two. Those are the only two playoff meetings between them in the last ten years.

    However, I think this game will have less to do with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady than any other game between them. The teams around them are more important than ever because the landscape of this game gets pretty clear after one glance. Simply put, this game will be decided by the play of the offensive lines. Brady was very lucky that Justin Houston wasn't healthy enough to play more than 8 snaps last week. When the Chiefs had to blitz in order to bring pressure, Brady was able to execute everything he wanted from his game plan. As expected, White and Edelman were big parts of the game and Gronk was able to make a few plays. On the other side of the coin, Peyton's arm looked horrible, but his line did not have that much trouble against the Steelers rush. He was pressured on 10 of 38 drop backs (PFF) and completed his balls at a 11.2 YPA when he was. Manning was good against the pressure, but the run game was more important. As a team, they got past the 100 yard mark for the 10th time this season, improving to 9-1 when they do so. When Denver beat New England in overtime during the regular season, the rushing attack accounted for 179 yards and three touchdowns.

    This game will be a coaching fetish of offensive line play. Someone might want to get guys like Tom Cable and Mike Tice their own rooms.

    BW: You know Rich, we're not there yet, but I already miss the Roman Numerals for this year's Super Bowl. They're just so fitting, and Super Bowl XXX looked so much more daunting than Super Bowl 30. I guess the L isn't a strong enough letter to hold its own, but Super Bowl 50 just doesn't look right to me. Which is fair, I suppose, because I couldn't have been more let down by the NFL Network's re-airing of Super Bowl I (The First World Championship Game AFL vs. NFL). I know the game wasn't great, but what was the problem with letting us watch the game instead of being subjected to watching it in a split screen while various NFLN commentators and special guests from the game talked over each play? Apparently they're fixing their mistake this week and letting us watch the game without studio interference, so that's a good thing.

    Anyway, I suppose that it is most appropriate to lead into a milestone Super Bowl with the one Conference Championship QB matchup that has occurred more often than any other. Stabler-Bradshaw met 3 consecutive times in the 70s, and Aikman-Young met 3 consecutive times in the 90s, and if we want to go back that far, Bobby Layne and Otto Graham met in the NFL Championship Game 3 consecutive times in the 50s. But what makes this matchup so remarkable is not just that this is the 4th Conference Championship meeting between Manning and Brady (Manning has won 2 of the previous 3), it's that Manning has led 2 different teams to this stage on multiple occasions, and that the 4 match-ups span 13 seasons. This also guarantees that for the 13th time in the last 15 seasons, Manning, Brady, or Roethlisberger will be quarterbacking the AFC representative in the Super Bowl, an unprecedented run of dominance.

    You are very correct that this game will come down to the play of the offensive line, but it's fair to say that there are many more questions at this stage about Manning than Brady. The Denver line did a pretty impressive job in protecting Manning last weekend, and did a very nice job creating room for the Denver running game against a tough Pittsburgh front 7. More importantly, for the first time since week 15 of last season, Manning didn't turn the ball over, and let's face it, even one turnover probably costs them the game. Against a banged up Pittsburgh offense, simply not turning the ball over proved to be enough, but will that be enough this week?

    The answer is maybe. New England's offensive line played very well last week, but you mentioned the loss of Justin Houston as a major factor. The Patriots can't run the football, which could pose major problems for them this week, since the Denver pass defense as a whole is elite. Denver's defense won the first meeting between the two teams this year, and the defense will have to carry them again if they want to advance to the Super Bowl. That New England is forced to be so one-dimensional plays directly into the Broncos' hands. They are capable of holding Brady to 17, and I have a feeling that's what it's going to take to win this game. But Manning is going to have to once again help out the defense by protecting the football.

    How do you see this game playing out? Is there any chance New England is going to even attempt to establish a semblance of a running game? Who are the X factors for both teams this week?

    RG: It's hard to find something really deep here because both teams present who they are so well. Denver has to know that Peyton Manning cannot have the 2 interceptions he averages against Bill Belichick teams. New England has to know that the key to the game is the same success they had with the quick passes last week. Darth Hoodie always seems to have something up his tattered sleeves, but I have no real idea what that could be. Does he pound the rock with Bolden and Steven "AARP" Jackson? I doubt it. The game plan was somewhat predictable last week and I was confident that my analysis was good, but I was also scared of Billy (Thank you old Ted Marchibroda quotes) pulling a fast one. It turned out that White (only one carry) was almost used exclusively in the passing game and the game plan was exactly what we all expected. It's not like we had the only column with that discussion.

    Is there a way that Vernon Davis is freed up and actually on the field? I doubt it, unless it's some weird goal line call to try to surprise the Pats. Peyton Manning is not the type of person to start using guys that he just doesn't have the reps with and the backfield already is filled with two different names, so it's really hard to find any surprises or X-Factors on the Denver offense.

    If Denver can run the ball effectively against the Pats, not turn the ball over and decrease the amount of chances the Pats have, the better their chances will be. Plus, their great defense will remain fresh and be able to maintain creativity during the entire game. On the other end, if New England can play the role of the Denver defense last week and hang around until one of their guys reads a Manning pass on a key play, then the Patriots have a great chance for victory.

    Here's the one weird thing I could see happening: The Patriots might not defer if they win the toss. Belichick has always deferred. There are even some articles out there detailing why it is a slight advantage. He probably believes them. Still, I think that it is possible that we see the Pats take the ball, call their best 11 pass plays and ride a quick 7-0 lead. If they start to put pressure on the Broncos and make them pass more than they would like, then the Pats secondary could be in position to make it a real long day for the Broncos.

    Overall, I see a battle where the teams each have about 9 possessions and Denver holds the ball for 35 minutes. I think the Pats are the better team and I expect them to win a close game that was never as close as the final. 20-14, 17-10, 20-10 and 17-13 are all numbers I feel are in play. Any final predictions on your end, Brian?

    BW: Bill Belichick signed Steven Jackson in large part because he feels that Brandon Bolden is most valuable on special teams, and would prefer not to him to risk him on offense. And it's not like Bolden has been an effective runner, but his 3.3 YPC dwarfs the 2.4 that Steven Jackson has put up in his 3 games as a Patriot. Bolden has been used in desperation, and perhaps desperation will dictate that he receives 10 carries on Sunday. More likely, we'll see a ton of James White, and considering he's not had more than 3 carries in any game, that probably means an even greater split than the 42 passes in 56 offensive snaps that we saw last week.

    For Denver, while they continue to start Ronnie Hillman, C.J. Anderson has been their most effective RB throughout the 2nd half of the season, and that continued last week. Anderson had 15 carries and his second of two 100 yard games in the first contest against New England, and iced the game with his 48 yard TD run in Overtime. He's had 15 carries in his last two games, matching his season high, and should be heavily involved this week.

    While New England can win with short passing, Denver will have no chance if they can't effectively run the football. Bill Belichick understands as well as anyone that the Broncos have zero passing game outside the numbers at this stage in Peyton Manning's career. Even though the temperature in Denver is supposed to be in the upper 40s with nothing more than a light breeze, New England will focus their attention inside the numbers, making it very difficult for Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders to find much space, and making it imperative for Denver to run the football because every foot of open space will become that much more critical.

    For Denver to win, the uglier the better. Holding Brady below 55% completion as in the first game would help tremendously, and to accomplish that, they'll need to force the issue with the pass rush in a way that Kansas City wasn't able to do last weekend. The opening could be there, with New England's offensive line struggling with injuries, but the risk is that they're never quite able to get to Brady, and he starts to pick them apart. Of course, if any team has the secondary to contain New England's weapons in the passing game, it's Denver.

    Turnovers are magnified at this time of year. We saw last week how just one turnover made all the difference in favor of Denver. But last week notwithstanding, at this stage in his career, Manning has become a turnover machine. A large part of me believes that New England should blow the Broncos out of the building, but the Patriots' one-dimensional attack plays right into the hands of the Denver defense. Denver's offensive balance and defensive strength will likely be enough to keep it close, but in a close game, I trust Brady much more than Manning. I see Brady putting them up by a TD late, then Manning making that final crucial mistake that ices the game for the Patriots. Let's call it 27-13 in a game much closer than the final score will indicate.
    COUNCIL PICK: (NE 6-1)

    Arizona at Carolina, 6:40pm- BW: While many of us may be bored with the prospect of another Brady vs. Manning match-up (raising my hand), this is the one remaining match-up the football-loving public deserves to see. Since the regular season expanded to 16 games following the 1977 season, this will be only the 5th occurrence of two teams that have combined for at least 28 regular season victories meeting in the playoffs-- 1984 Super Bowl XIX- San Francisco (15-1) def. Miami (14-2); 1998 NFC Championship- Atlanta (14-2) def. Minnesota (15-1); 1998 Super Bowl XXXIII- Denver (14-2) def. Atlanta (14-2); 2004 AFC Championship- New England (14-2) def. Pittsburgh (15-1); 2015- Carolina (15-1) vs. Arizona (13-3).

    Carson Palmer looked very shaky last week, but was bailed out by yet another huge playoff game by Larry Fitzgerald, who may have cemented himself as the greatest playoff performer to have not yet won a Super Bowl by putting the Cardinals on his back last week and stealing the momentum away from Green Bay in OT. Sometimes it takes a performance like that to allow a team to loosen up, and I expect a much better performance from Arizona this week. Arizona's strength all season has been with their vertical passing game. We all know about how great Josh Norman has been for Carolina, and their front 7 has been spectacular all year, but if there is a weakness to be had, it's in the secondary. The interesting thing about this match-up is that Josh Norman will most likely be matched up with Michael Floyd, and not Larry Fitzgerald, who's been operating mostly out of the slot. Meanwhile, the burnable Cortland Finnegan will likely have his hands full with John Brown. Don't be surprised if Bruce Arians decides to open things up on Arizona's first play from scrimmage, and allows Carson Palmer to unleash one down the field to Brown in an attempt to steal the tempo right from the start.

    For Carolina, we can pretend to go in a number of different directions, and Jonathan Stewart will play a vital role in this game, but it's all about Cam Newton. Rich, the Cardinals have an excellent defense, but especially without the versatile Tyrann Mathieu, will the Cardinals be able to find a way to contain Newton?

    RG: For Mathieu specifically, I expect to find the Cardinals changing coverage, especially after the snap. I think it will happen more often and be more successful when Ginn and Olsen are on the same side of the formation, so maybe Carolina will be smart enough not to do that. Anyway, while losing their versatile safety was a big blow, Arizona still has the personnel to do some interesting things with their players. Deone Bucannon might be the most interesting man on the field. Patrick Peterson is still the guy that is supposed to take away the team's best receiver. However, Ted Ginn is not the type of player where the defense has to be too concerned until he is running free on go routes. This will probably allow the Cardinals to be able to mix everything up between Rashad Johnson, Peterson and Bucannon. Even though Bucannon's role is much more important in the run game, I think we could see some very interesting things from them on obvious passing downs, particularly on third down. Why is that?

    Well, unless it is 3rd and 3 or less, the Panthers will only pass to Greg Olsen or see if Newton can run for 4 yards. The most ridiculous part of the Carolina performance last week was how often Greg Olsen was open for big catches. Olsen caught all six of his targets and every single one of them gained a first down (technically, one was the 19 yard touchdown, but it is considered a successful first down in stat sheets). Not only that, but the Panthers needed 6, 7, 7, 8, 14 and 15 yards for the first down on those plays and three of them were on third down. I'm sure the play-calling had something to do with it, but for a team like Seattle that normally makes it hard on the opponent, they made made it absurdly easy. Plus, three of those catches for first down were in the second half. Had the Seahawks just stuck to Olsen, they might have had a successful comeback.

    I say that because Russell Wilson ended up with great raw stats of 31 for 48, with 366 yards and three touchdowns. Of course, the defenses he faced later in the game were different than the ones that produced a sack and two picks early. Still, if Carson Palmer's tape job on his finger is good and he can produce anything like he did in the regular season, the Cardinals passing game should have an opportunity to be successful. According to PFF, Palmer was the only quarterback to have a positive rating in every game he played this year. Of course, his first negative rating came in a rough game last weekend. Still, Palmer's performance this year would have probably gained a MVP nod in any other season. He wasn't just one of the best at throwing the ball deep, he was the absolute best in the 10-19 yard range. It's his intermediate game that is so impressive. In that zone, he was 115 for 176 (65%) for 1,874 yards with 14 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He needs that kind of accuracy to be able to complete passes against Davis and Kuechly when they are roaming the zones. When we consider the coverage skills of those two, Carolina probably has the best combination of linebackers in the league.

    Alright, time to pass it back to you, tell us about how you feel about the Cardinals versus the Panthers run game.

    BW: The thing about the Carolina run game is not that it's dynamic insomuch as it's persistent and soul-crushing. Cam Newton is not Michael Vick or Randall Cunningham when he runs the football. Heck, he's not even Alex Smith who averaged 5.9 yards per carry this season. For a "running" QB, Newton's 4.8 YPC is relatively pedestrian, and represents a career low. But it seems like every time he needs 3 yards, he'll get 5, and every time they're near the end zone, he finds it. Out of his 132 rushing attempts this year, 56 have resulted in a 1st down for a 42.4% clip, the 2nd highest percentage of his career (43.7% last year). This is already Newton's 5th year in the league, and it's the 5th year he's led the league in that category. The threat of Newton enhances the production of all the Carolina backs, but Jonathan Stewart is a legit talent, and it's no surprise that the Panthers didn't lose a game this year with both he and Newton in the lineup. The threat of Cam gives hesitation to a defense, and nothing leads to a successful ground game quite like causing the defense to have to overthink. Add in the nearly 33 rushes per game the Panthers average, plus the punishing component that both Newton and Stewart bring to the table, and even the best of defenses eventually cave.

    Arizona has a very good defense, and according to Football Outsiders, are the 2nd best in the league against the run. But their only real experience against a team with a running threat at QB this year was against Seattle, who averaged 130 yards rushing in their two meetings. The Seahawks rank 3rd in the league against the run according to FO, and despite the added benefit of preparing against Russell Wilson, allowed 139.5 yards per game to the Panthers in their two meetings. Jonathan Stewart broke last week's game open early, while Cam was rendered a non-factor in the ground game for one of the few times all season. As with any running team, it's important for Arizona to get out to a quick lead to try and effectively eliminate the running element for the Panthers, but with Cam Newton's ability to scramble along with his passing proficiency--he finished one off the league lead in both passing TDs (35) and rushing TDs (10)--the Panthers led the league in scoring with over 31 points per game, and won't panic even if they fall behind by more than one score.

    It's going to be a tall order for Arizona to leave Charlotte with a Super Bowl berth in tow, but they are certainly talented enough to make it happen. However, while each team features a very strong defense, Arizona matches up well with Carolina's defensive weakness, and Carolina has the ability to demoralize even the best of defenses with their ground game. Arizona has statistically done well against the TE, but it seems like they can be exploited against more athletic TEs, especially without Mathieu, so I expect Greg Olsen to continue to find room in the passing game. And while Carolina doesn't feature a traditional #1 WR, or even a #2, they each feature a very specific and diverse skill set that has proven to be quite productive as a whole. Also, while Carolina has only turned the ball over 4 times in their last 5 games, the Cardinals have 7 TOs in their last 3, and if Carson Palmer's yips continue, that would play right into the hands of the league's top defense in terms of takeaways.

    I think this is a higher scoring game than many expect. Arizona has no choice other than to play better than last week, and coming into Carolina as an underdog will help. But this is the year of Cam Newton. Carolina will consistently move the ball and mostly dominate the Cardinals on their way to a 37-24 victory. Go ahead and close us out, Rich. Are you with me in saying that this is the year of the Panthers?

    RG: Yeah, I think that I do. I am going to stick with the boring thing of picking the favorites this weekend. I enjoyed and agreed with your analysis of the Carolina rushing attack. I also think that more points are scored than people might think. Vegas has the over/under at 48 and would be inclined to take the over if I had any ducats to bet on the game.

    Overall, I think these are two talented teams that, despite having good defenses, have the type of offenses that can consistently move the ball and get points. Arizona does match up well with their passing game full of crosses and deep shots that can take advantage of the Carolina zone defense. They like to play Cover 3 on early downs that Arizona can combat with the mismatches they will have deep against Cortland Finnegan (who is a better name than player at this point) and Tre Boston, though Boston has played pretty well. On later downs, Carolina likes to stick with their Tampa 2 scheme that goes back to Rivera learning it in Chicago. This is the exact type of match-up where the losses of Tillman and Benwikere will be obvious. The Panthers will mix up the defenses enough and maybe even throw in some man on early downs to try to trip up the Arizona aerial attack. Still, the Cardinals will eventually find space.

    Also, to piggy-back onto your point, the Carolina rushing attack will be smart enough to know that Arizona is formidable in the interior, so expect them to be crisp on their outside runs as I think that should be their point of emphasis with the return of Stewart. His return, paired with an attack that can hit deep a couple of times, should be enough for the Panthers to score points. As you alluded, we also should expect the play calls to find a way to get Olsen open a few times on key plays.

    Finally, Arizona offense more prone to the turnover and we have seen a shaky Carson Palmer since his finger injury. Think about it. He hurt it against the Eagles and returned later in that game, which was a blowout. Then, he didn't have to throw much the week after that because the defense forced five Green Bay giveaways. They mailed in the week 17 game and Palmer looked a bit off in the rematch against the Packers. I think the Cardinals come short by one thing. I don't know what that one thing is, but maybe they have one deep ball dropped. Maybe they turn the ball over in the red zone again. Maybe it's just a late failed first down. I'll give this one to Carolina 31-27. However, I'll be rooting for Arizona. I can't help it. I think I'd wear black Nikes and drink the poisoned Kool-Aid for Bruce Arians.


    LAST WEEK: 4-0
    SEASON: 166-98 (62%)
    UNANIMOUS: 45-17 (72%)

    Comments 17 Comments
    1. iwatt's Avatar
      The Cards have a shaky kicker.
    1. Amy's Avatar
      Denver won the first time around because of two things:

      Chris Harper fumbled two punts, and Hightower went out hurt. After Dont'a went down, Denver's running game started to work.

      Now, we have Martin and Danny on kick duty, and Martin's done a great job. The key to the game is simple:

      If Denver can effectively run the ball, they win. If they cannot, they lose. I expect us to win, but anything can happen.

      As for the NFC, I think it will be interesting no matter what. But, I lean Panthers for one simple reason - the weather might be horrible. If it is, that doesn't hinder Carolina as much as it does Arizona.
    1. Nancy's Avatar
      The weather will be fine Sunday. Today and tomorrow, not so much. According to the announcers, the field at BofA last Sunday was THE WORST FIELD IN THE HISTORY OF THE GAME! OH MY GOD, THE POOR SEAHAWKS! It's covered with a tarp, of course, but we've had sleet and freezing rain for 24 hours, and it's supposed to snow all night and into the day tomorrow, so conditions could be hard for the poor Cardinals!!!!
      The Panthers have a few more injuries this week: Allen is out, but as long as Ealy doesn't go down as well, that's not too much of a concern. Stewart has a sore ankle, but is a go, and Fozzy Whitaker still has a high ankle sprain. He's practiced some, but I'd be surprised if he plays. I haven't heard anything about Olsen's condition, but Seattle beat him up pretty good last week, and I'm concerned that he won't be at full strength. Funchess was a non-factor last week. Not sure how much to expect from a rookie against another good defense, but the Panthers have a much better chance if he has a good game.

      I've moaned about the problems in the secondary pretty much every week, and y'all are right: Cortland Finnegan and Tre Boston are not great, but they were more or less adequate against the Seahawks. The Seahawks do not have Fitzgerald, Floyd, and Brown. The Panthers have to keep pressure on Palmer for 4 quarters, and the offense needs to find a balance between grinding it out to keep Palmer et al. off the field, and just playing their game offensively; protecting a big lead is smart, but the Panthers aren't very good at it.
    1. Brian Williams's Avatar
      Weather shouldn't be a factor in either game.
    1. xmenehune's Avatar
      from sports reference..

    1. Amy's Avatar
      For the curious:

      Last week, Mr. Commissioner was in Denver.

      This week, he is is Charlotte.

      If we win, will he be in Santa Clara in two weeks? You know he will be if Denver wins!
    1. Brian Williams's Avatar
      By the way, this is not the oldest QB matchup in playoff history.

      At 43 years old, Raiders QB George Blanda did not start the (first ever) AFC Championship, but he replaced Daryle Lamonica early. His counterpart was 37 year old Johnny Unitas, who led the Colts to a 27-17 win before winning his only Super Bowl 16-13 over the Cowboys.

      That Unitas season may be the most similar comp to this Manning season, as I mentioned in last week's BP. We'll see if Manning has a similar positive result today.
    1. Nancy's Avatar
      I love announcers. At the beginning of the game, only Manning was old. Brady had a couple of tough series, and suddenly he's an old dude too. Sheesh.
    1. hobbes27's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by Nancy View Post
      I love announcers. At the beginning of the game, only Manning was old. Brady had a couple of tough series, and suddenly he's an old dude too. Sheesh.
      Brady made some boneheaded decisions. But he also didn't get much help from his OC or his line either.
    1. iwatt's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by hobbes27 View Post
      Brady made some boneheaded decisions. But he also didn't get much help from his OC or his line either.
      He should have eaten some more sacks, probably, instead of throwing thoise picks. But sometimes Von Miller is just too good. It's a split second decision. I don't think Brady was the p.roblem
    1. Brian Williams's Avatar
      In a related story, the Patriots have apparently fired their OL coach.
    1. iwatt's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by Brian Williams View Post
      In a related story, the Patriots have apparently fired their OL coach.
      They used to have Dante Scarnechia as OL coach. He would alwys be a tough act to follow. You never want to be the guy after THE GUY.

      But they had rookies on the kine, a RT playing as a LT, and a swing Tackle as RT. Their interior line never adjusted to all the changes, and they faced the best couple of bookend rushers since Freeney/Mathis or Harrison/any other Steeler OLB in 2008
    1. Rich Gapinski's Avatar
      Here's the one weird thing I could see happening: The Patriots might not defer if they win the toss. Belichick has always deferred. There are even some articles out there detailing why it is a slight advantage. He probably believes them. Still, I think that it is possible that we see the Pats take the ball, call their best 11 pass plays and ride a quick 7-0 lead.
      I got a lot of things wrong this year. Like putting the Panthers in last place of the NFC South. Still, I am pretty proud of this particular educated guess. Obviously, like many other things, it did not work out for the Pats last Sunday.

      Looking back, I still just can't get over how well Wade Phillips did with his defense. Forced Brady into his first sub 50% and two interception game in his two-season long playoff career.
    1. Evan Vracar's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by Rich Gapinski View Post
      I got a lot of things wrong this year. Like putting the Panthers in last place of the NFC South. Still, I am pretty proud of this particular educated guess. Obviously, like many other things, it did not work out for the Pats last Sunday.

      Looking back, I still just can't get over how well Wade Phillips did with his defense. Forced Brady into his first sub 50% and two interception game in his two-season long playoff career.
      Speaking of everything we got wrong, I took the liberty of digging up our preseason predictions and am here now to display them once more for posterity's sake.

      I will now happily take credit for being the one who came closest to predicting the Panthers this season.
    1. Brian Williams's Avatar
      The Panthers didn't finish 3-13?

      Nice to see I picked the Super Bowl teams to combine for 10 wins. I'm good at this.
    1. Rich Gapinski's Avatar
      Only one of my last place teams made the playoffs.

      But..... FOUR of my third place teams did. I may note this for next year.
    1. Patrick Sullivan's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by Rich Gapinski View Post
      Only one of my last place teams made the playoffs.

      But..... FOUR of my third place teams did. I may note this for next year.
      I had three. (PIT, KC, MIN).